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Former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson dead at 101; featured in ‘Hidden Figures’ movie

Katherine Johnson's work at NASA's Langley Research Center spanned 1953 to 1986 and included calculating the trajectory of the early space launches. (NASA/Released)
February 24, 2020

Former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson died Monday at the age of 101, according to NASA.

Johnson’s math was used in the flight trajectory analysis for the very first human spaceflight with Alan Shepard in 1961, and in John Glenn’s orbital mission in 1962, among many others in her 33-year career at NASA. Glenn personally asked for Johnson to recheck the trajectory figures and said, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”

Johnson’s story at NASA was recounted in the movie “Hidden Figures” in 2016 in which she was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson.

The film also featured fellow NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan (portrayed by Octavia Spencer) and engineer Mary Jackson (portrayed by Janelle Monáe).

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Johnson broke racial barriers in his career and became one of the first black students to integrate in West Virginia graduate schools in 1939, being handpicked by the university president to do so because of her exceptional mathematical skills.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted Monday morning, “Our @NASA family is sad to learn the news that Katherine Johnson passed away this morning at 101 years old. She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten.”

NASA itself tweeted, “We’re saddened by the passing of celebrated #HiddenFigures mathematician Katherine Johnson. Today, we celebrate her 101 years of life and honor her legacy of excellence that broke down racial and social barriers.”